Fall Of The Roman Empire
Many films lay claim to the title of epic but few, especially now, truly deserve that notation. The real age of the epic film was the mid sixties and one of the finest examples is ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’. This film is the textbook example of the epic with its massive scope and sweeping story. This film was released when going to the movies was still something special. It ran for over three hours and there was an intermission placed in the middle to allow the audience to get up stretch their legs and hit the concession stands. Back then the term ‘cast of thousands’ was to be taken literally; the number of extras was enough to fill a small town. Now computers would create those combatants but there is still something special about seeing the real thing. Many times such a film is not appreciated in its own time. This film was not the box office success the way films like ‘Ben-Hur’ or ‘Spartacus’ were. Now, with through the decades that have past people into the art of cinema can stand back with fresh eyes and marvel at the construction and presentation of this classic. The film has everything an audience could ever want; action, political intrigue, gore and romance. You cannot call yourself a serious film collector if this title is absent from your shelves.
For a film like this with so many sub plots and emotions it would be nearly impossible for one man to do it all. This film had three authors for it script; each one bringing a special expertise to the table. The first is Ben Barzman. He had experience in the epic film script from his work on another classic of the genre, ‘El Cid’. Amoung his many other scripts was ‘Town Without Pity’, a taut and for its time controversial movie that took on the difficult subject to of guilt and innocence. Next is Basilio Franchina, noted Italian scriptwriter of his time. He would subsequently work with Barzman on ‘Blue Max’. These two men were more than up to the task of adding an international favor to the story. Last but certainly not least there was Philip Yordan. He was the anchor for the team with writing credits that encompassed such hits as ‘El Cid’ and ‘King of Kings’. In the fifties and sixties he fronted for the black listed writer Bernard Gordon and as such knew first hand about dark times in a government. He also wrote some little classics like ‘Houdini’ and ‘Detective Story’. These three men construct a complex story that entwines several main plots all revolving around the causes for the fall of one of the greatest empires in history. This personalized the times taking it from the dusty pages of scholarly history books and creating a gripping human drama.
The man at the helm for this film was Anthony Mann. If you look at his body of work you will see an incredibly diverse list of cinema. He was best known for his film noir movies such as ‘Desperate’, ‘He Walked by Night’ and ‘T-Men’. For this film he brought some of the darker aspects of noir into play. Since this story deals with the disintegration of the largest, most powerful empire the old world new the fit was perfect. Mann uses noir techniques to paint a picture of some of the men here as morally ambiguous; driven more by the times as any innate inclinations. Mann was the master of another popular genre; the American Western with films like ‘Tin Star’, ‘Winchester '73’, ‘The Far Country’ and ‘The Man from Laramie’. This provided him with the experience for the sweeping action set before an often desolate landscape. He also directed the commercially more successful epic, ‘El Cid’. Mann was able to draw on the best of each of familiar genres to fulfill the diversified demands of such a film as this. Another aluminums of ‘El Cid’ is present here, Robert Krasker. He was a cinematographer with rare vision able to contrast the smallest details against the grand landscapes that make up this film. Every shot is breathtakingly stunning. There have been pan & scan versions of this film released but that is butchery against the creative work of this man.
At the start of the film, Marcus Caesar Aurelius (Alex Guiness) is in failing health. He is fighting battles on several fronts as Huns and Barbarians crush closer to the borders of the empire. It has come time for the emperor to choose his successor and to the surprise of most the high ranking Romans he over looks his own son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer) in favor of a successful general of the northern campaign, Livius (Stephen Boyd). Such power and responsibility is something that Livius fears on many levels; uncertain of his ability to rule. Those closest to Caesar feel that it has come time for his reign to end and decide to slip him some poison to help him into a permanent retirement. The blind Cleander (Mel Ferrer) is give the task to deliver the poison. The inner circle wants Commodus since he is more likely to maintain the current power structure keeping them in control. Meanwhile the Northern and Eastern regions are fighting against Rome stretching the Romanian resources past its limits. Since Livius is the declared heir to the throne he extends his power by sending his rival, Commondus to the North to lead the fight their. Commondus responds with political moves, bribes and gets control of the army. This is a three hour movie so let’s face it a lot happens including a romance between Livus and the lovely Licilla (Sophia Loren). By the end the once great Roman Empire is at the edge of its final fall.
The DVD released of this movie was attempted back in 2001 by Buena Vista. That was supposed to be a pan & scan version which would never do justice to the scope of the film. Now the distribution rights are in the hands of the Weinstein Company and they know how best to present this film on disc. It follows ‘El Cid’ as a member of Weinstein’s elite film line, The Miriam Collection. This is their top of the line distribution arm which will feature the best in classic and foreign films. The movie is completely re-mastered. The 2.35:1, anamorphic video has not look this good since it was first shown in 1964. It is bright with a perfect color balance and tone. The audio is a vibrant Dolby 2.0. In Keeping with the theme of restoration it was not enhanced to full 5.1 maintaining the original stereo mix.
The film is available in two variations; a two disc deluxe edition or the three disc limited collector’s edition. There is about a $15 price difference but the limited edition does provide enough to warrant the extra cash.
This is a combination of a piece of cinematic history and great entertainment that is not to be missed.